DP FICTION #87A: “A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
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edited by Kel Coleman

Sept 3

New boy in school today. Someone was whispering that he comes from a mysterious family that bought the old Klappenhoffer mansion. Maisie said he stared at me with “a dark and piercing gaze” when we passed each other in the hall. I did not notice as I was writing down ideas to perfect my recipe for the state fair grilled cheese competition. I don’t care what Eli Barajas comes up with. This year I will WIN.


Sept 8

During my taste testing in fourth period, Dr. Washington confiscated my small grill and said competition or no, I was not allowed to burn down the school in pursuit of glory, which I think shows a real lack of vision. Dr. Washington said I was welcome to take my vision to detention, so I had to have Maisie and Dee try the cheeses unmelted, which defeated the whole purpose. But it didn’t matter because no one could focus on cheese. They just kept talking about the new boy. 

Dee said his name is Byron, which is “so romantic.” I pointed out that the poet Byron slept with his half-sister and had venereal disease. Maisie told Dee my soul is bereft of romance. New guy Byron came to palely loiter over us while I had Maisie try Irish versus Wisconsin. He looked deeply into my eyes and said that he was hungry too and licked his lips. I offered him some of the cheese, but he refused, saying his is a tragic and eternal hunger. I guess he’s lactose intolerant?


Sept 9

Madame du Pont is from one of the best cheese countries in the entire world, but does she even appreciate my struggles to elevate her nation’s greatest export? She caught me reading Fantasies of the Fromagerie during class and confiscated my copy! Then she dumped a massive tome on my desk called Vive le fromage which was in FRENCH. Madame du Pont said if I had to read about cheese, I could do it in the proper language, which I said was a complete waste of time and that she had no camembert in her heart. 

Anyway, after I got out of detention, the Drama Club was still around, so I had them guinea pig my new recipe. Byron watched from the shadows, which I guess is his thing. I had set up the table with some samples when Eli—I swear he can smell competition from a mile away—came by, grinned at me, and while I was in shock, the bastard swiped one. I tried to snatch it back, but he popped in his mouth too quickly. My nemesis may taunt me, but I will not be distracted. Victory is mere weeks away and there have been some promising developments with baguettes.


Sept 12

Parmesan, I suspect, may be the key to winning. I was telling Maisie this in study hall when Byron slipped in. Maisie leaned over and whispered that four people from town have disappeared since Byron arrived, and that Madame du Pont is now missing. Maisie said something about how the missing people have nothing in common—different neighborhoods, different ages, which naturally led me to wonder how aged the Parmesan should be. Would the judges be partial to twelve months or twenty-four? I asked Maisie, but she said I was missing the point, then threw a sharp look at Byron, skulking in the corner. After that, she left to go to field hockey practice and Byron appeared next to me (I didn’t even hear him move, such is the reality of one immersed in the Jarlsberg of life) and said we should study for our math test together. I truthfully told him that I’m flunking calc, so I wouldn’t be much help. He said we should hang out anyway, that he was intrigued by me. I told him I was intrigued by Parmesan and, actually, what did he think of Gruyère? He seemed very confused.


Sept 13

Byron randomly slunk over to my desk—again, which was annoying because he is quite boring—at lunch to ask if I believed in immutable destiny. I realized that of course he must be talking about the state fair grilled cheese competition, so I said yes. I told Byron that soon I would live forever, immortal in triumph. Byron got all excited and asked, then, did I agree that “two people bound in an undying fate must be yoked beyond the valence of time?” I don’t know what a valence is, but I looked down four desks at Eli, who has annoyingly nice hair, and said, “Yeah.” For some reason, Byron seemed very happy after that. 

I had not realized he cared that much about the competition.


Sept 16

Saw Eli today at The Daily Rind. He winked as he was leaving, but if he thinks I’m going easy on him just because he’s charming, he is WRONG. I was dying to know what he’d ordered, but Mrs. Papageorgiou flatly refused to tell me what he’d bought, citing the sacred trust of the cheesemonger, which is not a real thing. I was trying to cajole the answer out of her when Byron walked up behind me, looked Mrs. Papageorgiou in the eyes, and whispered, Didn’t she want to tell us? I rolled my eyes, but suddenly, she was reciting the name of every cheese Eli had ever bought, including two new imported varieties from Oaxaca and the Swiss Alps. So much for the sacred trust. I ordered both and a couple goat cheeses, too. When I had finished paying, Mrs. Papageorgiou suddenly snapped to attention as if she’d just woken up. It was weird. She didn’t even remember what I’d ordered. Maybe she’s been sniffing the Vieux Lille again.


Sept 18

Had a sub in World History today as Mr. Rabinowicz was out. More people in town have gone missing. Maisie and Archita said it’s a bad sign, but as I said, who wouldn’t want to leave this town?

Beatriz said to make sure that I come home before dark, and I told Mom that her girlfriend should mind her own beeswax but, speaking of beeswax, what were their thoughts on cheese with honey? Mom said to focus on improving my grades and getting home earlier. Beatriz yelled, “Never give in! Never! Never! Never!” from the living room. Mom responded by humming the theme music from Gallipoli. I am at a crucial moment in my preparations, yet I am beset by mockery. 

I asked Maisie to come over for more taste testing, but she said she’s doing some project at her uncle’s carpentry workshop and can’t make it.


Sept 23

Byron insisted on walking me home from the library. I was going to refuse, but The Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese is a heavy book and clearly Byron has nothing better to do. As we went, he asked me what I thought had happened to the people that had gone missing. I told him the only thing that was missing was a secret ingredient to ensure my victory.

We walked in silence for a while, so I decided to be polite and ask Byron about himself. He muttered something about everlasting torment. Then he looked into my eyes and said he yearned for someone who “walked the waters like a thing of life,” and didn’t I understand? I did not understand. Was this a religious thing? Also, did he think Eli had figured out what I bought from Mrs. Papageorgiou? What did he think Eli’s strategy would be? Byron seemed frustrated for some reason. After that he stared off into the distance, which was great, because it meant he stopped talking. When we finally got to my house, I relieved him of my copy of the Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese. I thought he’d follow me inside, but he just stood there in the doorway like a tragic fondue.


Sept 24

Eli sat next to me in bio today. I told him he’s going down. He grinned and said he’s a lover, not a fighter, but he had big plans for beating me. I told Eli he could bite me.

Byron, who was lurking behind us, got all riled up for no reason whatsoever and bared his teeth, which looked surprisingly pointy and sharp. Hm…sharp makes me think of Limburger. Perhaps that would go better with the honey?


Oct 4

While we were going over our bio homework, Maisie said that eight people are now missing. She said she’s going to find out what’s happening. She glanced at Byron, who simply glowered at her and then resumed staring out the window, mumbling poetry. I don’t get why Maisie is so interested in someone who spends all his time brooding. I said it was definitely not a gouda situation. Maisie didn’t even laugh! Not one giggle. It’s amazing that we have been friends for so many years when she has absolutely no sense of humor.

Eli, who was sitting two rows up, did laugh, though. I said I didn’t appreciate him making fun of me and he said the thought had not o-CURD to him. The jerk. How dare he try to out-pun me! I told him I will have him know that I have a grate sense of humor and as for the competition, there was no whey he would defeat me, ah HA! He laughed at that, too, but I suspect it is a strategy to make me go easy on him. Only ten more days to go, though, and he shall taste the Roquefort of defeat.


Oct 9

I have flaky, delectable goat cheese that is the perfect balance of salty and sour. I have local honey as gold as the trophy I am destined to win. I have sourdough baked by my own two hands and my secret ingredient. Also, I have the support of my friends, all of whom I badgered into coming. Byron also invited himself along. God knows why.


Oct 14

In the face of defeat, one must be a stalwart mozzarella. 

Eli should remember that because


My honey lavender grilled goat cheese on sourdough won! I have a blue ribbon, a small trophy, and eternal glory. Mom said she’s just glad to have her kitchen back. Eli got second place, which was a gift certificate to the Daily Rind. He took his defeat surprisingly well. He came over and gave me a big hug and when his arms wrapped around me I felt like grilled cheese on the inside, which I told Maisie, who said it is not a romantic simile. We were getting ready to go to a celebratory dinner when Byron pulled me aside, stared deep into my eyes, and started to speak. Everything got strange and foggy, which was when Maisie grabbed me and dragged me away. I barely remember it. I’m turning into Mrs. Papageorgiou.


Oct 16

In bio, Eli came over to congratulate me again and said my grilled cheese sandwich was the best he had ever had. I know a declaration of love when I hear one. I kissed him right then and there. We’re going to Homecoming together!

Maisie says it’s strange that I’m dating Eli, but I told her we were bound to have a cheesy ending. Maisie did not even smile. I asked her if she was going to the dance with Byron, because she seems totally into him (which is sad, because he is very dull, though of course I didn’t say that because I am an empathetic person). She said no, Byron was interested in me—which was a shock, because he never showed any signs of it, boys are weird—and anyway she’s skipping the dance to go stake something out.


Oct 30

I love Eli Barajas and my soul is brie, all rich and melty. Homecoming was surprisingly fun. Byron did not go. No one has heard from him since right before the dance. He stopped coming to school, too, and apparently isn’t coming back. It is probably because I broke his heart. I am sure he will recover eventually. Byron has his immutable destiny and a valence or whatever it was.

The Klappenhoffer mansion is for sale again. Maisie seems quite pleased about it, but won’t say why. She invited me to come by her uncle’s workshop on Friday to see her woodworking projects. She’s very into sharpening and sanding things these days. I’ll go to be supportive, even if she is getting a little obsessive. Fortunately for her, I am a very understanding friend. I actually had hoped to be with Eli that night because I wanted to go to the observatory for the full moon, but he says he’s locked into some monthly family thing. I said I understood, because it is good to be magnanimous when one is the State Fair Grilled Cheese Champion.

© 2022 by Amanda Hollander

2160 words

Author’s Note: I was talking with a writer friend who had years earlier written a dark, haunting zombie love story that involved a grilled cheese analogy. We joked that you could give me the same assignment—monster romance with a mention of grilled cheese—and it would go haywire. The next day, I woke up with a cheery and clueless teenage character in my brain chattering away about grilled cheese sandwiches while some hapless immortal lurked nearby, darkly pining, and the rest is this story.

Amanda Hollander is a writer and opera librettist in New York City, where she resides in the company of a cat, who has recently entered the dowager empress phase of feline life, and some barely enduring succulents. Amanda has published stories in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. She does, alas, suffer from lactose intolerance, and as such has enjoyed this foray into dairy escapism.

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The Best of Cast of Wonders 2019

written by David Steffen

Cast of Wonders is the YA branch of the Escape Artists podcasts, edited by Marguerite Kenner and Katherine Inskip, covering all speculative genres and aiming to appeal to YA audiences.  Marguerite Kenner announced at the end of the last episode of the year that that was the last episode she was editing before stepping down. She will be missed!

This year’s offerings included their usual staff pick re-airing of stories from last year (which are not considered for the list since they were already considered for a previous list), and stories for their Banned Books Week theme, for a total of about 43 stories considered for the list.

Short Stories that are Hugo and Nebula eligible for the year are marked with an asterisk (*).

The List

1. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” (Part 1 and Part 2) by Tina Connolly, narrated by Alethea Kontis
This is one of my favorite stories in years. The layers! Based around confections that draw you back into immersive flashbacks that evoke a particular feeling based on the ingredients of the confection.

2. “Blame it on the Bees” by Rachel Menard, narrated by Tina Connolly*
A teen grieving over her dead friend discovers that her friend’s soul has become housed in a flower.

3. “Common Grounds and Various Teas” by Sherin Nicole, narrated by Jesenia Pineda*
A family that can harness the power of stories, and finding your own way in a family tradition.

4. “A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension” by Andrea M. Pawley, narrated by Dani Daly
Tale from an android child’s point of view, about how she fits in with her family, and how roles change as the family changes.

5. “Why I Spared the One Brave Soul Between Me and My Undead Army” by Setsu Uzume, narrated by Katherine Inskip*
From the point of view of a necromancer overlord, and the one she spares, and what comes of it

Honorable Mentions

“An Evil Opportunity Employer” by Lawrence Watt-Evans, narrated by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

written by David Steffen

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is the 4th and final movie in the Hunger Games movie series, which is based on the second half of the third book of the written trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and was released by Lionsgate Films in November 2015.

Twelve districts are ruled over by the capital of PanAm.  In continued punishment for a rebellion 75 years ago, the capital rules over the districts oppressively, including forcing children from each community to participate in annual Hunger Games–tournaments to the death both for the entertainment of the capital and to send messages about rebellions.  Inspired by the rebellious actions of Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve, and from their new stronghold in District Thirteen that was previously thought destroyed by almost everyone, the districts are in open conflict with the capital for the first time in 75 years.

When the last movie left off, Katniss Everdeen, who has continued to play the hero for the cameras, now as an avatar of District Thirteen, has been reunited with her former Hunger Games partner and longtime love Peeta, but he has been brainwashed by the capital so thoroughly to twist his love for her into hatred, and he almost succeeds in killing her.  Their next move against the capital is to bring Katniss and Peeta through dangerous boobytrapped sections of the city to make their move against President Snow on-camera.  Katniss isn’t convinced that President Coin of District Thirteen is much better.

The trilogy of books this is based on is powerful and heartfelt, and the movies are reasonably fair adaptations of them.  As with most movie adaptations of books, I’d say the books are better if only because there is more space to spread out and we can get to know the internal conflicts of the characters in more detail, but these movie adaptations, including this one, are some of the best I’ve ever seen and are well worth watching, and I’m glad that because of the movies more people will be familiar with the stories.  Excellent conclusion to the movie series, well worth watching.

Interview: Eric Laster

Eric LasterEric Laster is a YA author, former ghost writer, and orphan/homeless advocate. Welfy Q. Deederhoth: Meat Purveyor, World Savior is the first of a trilogy.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Before publishing your own book, you were a YA ghostwriter. What are some of the YA novels you worked on?

ERIC LASTER: Actually, I published one book under my own name, through Simon & Schuster, entitled The Adventures of Erasmus Twiddle, which is what led to my being hired as a ghostwriter. I’m not legally allowed to disclose specifically what YA novels I ghosted because I signed an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement). What I can tell you: I ghosted a fantasy trilogy, two volumes of which perched awhile on the New York Times YA bestseller list. More recently, and unrelated to YA, I worked as the unacknowledged ghost/credited editor of a lush photography book entitled 108 Rock Star Guitars by Lisa S. Johnson, the soft-cover of which comes out in November (obviously, I did not sign a NDA).


Does an author provide a ghostwriter with a synopsis, an outline, a rough draft manuscript, recorded dictation of ideas? Do you meet with the author for a question and answer session? What type of communication and how much communication goes on between a ghostwriter and the author about what the author wants to accomplish with the novel?

I can, of course, only describe how the process worked for me. When I first met the credited author of the YA stuff I ghosted, she told me the plot outline of what would become the first book in a trilogy. After hearing the outline, I said that it sounded as if she knew the broad gestures of the plot, but little else. Yes, she knew the main characters’ general backstories, but she didn’t have a single scene in which characters spoke or interacted with one another, and I said that she’d have to be okay with me making all of it up. Once we came to terms and everything was official (she hired me, not a publisher), I received notes on various elements of the book’s invented world,weapons, means of travel, that sort of thing. In addition to changing some of the given characters’ backstories, I wound up conceiving of a number of my own weapons, characters, and creatures.

Incidentally, though I didn’t say this to the credited author at the time, I suspected at the outset that the broad gestures of the plot would not fully remain once the characters were going about their business. For me, in this kind of writing, there’s a rhythm to a plot or story, which is dictated by what seems natural for characters to think or do, and which is set going once the writing starts. It’s best to listen to that rhythm rather than superimpose a structure onto their doings. If an element of a preconceived plot works,great. If it doesn’t, forget it. So the first book I ghosted did not follow the original outline, though many of the most important broad strokes remained. For book two of the trilogy, I was left alone,meaning that no plot points were discussed beforehand, no ideas bandied about until I’d already started writing. For book three, I made a concerted effort to involve the credited author more in discussions of plot, etc. But in general, for all three books, I would send new chapters every several weeks or so, and we would then discuss them. I was very lucky in that she seemed to like the choices I made. Overall, we had an excellent relationship and are now friends, though we both admit to sometimes feeling weird about the whole thing. Publishers weren’t keen to have both of our names on the books. A proper, exhaustive credit for the trilogy would be: story by credited author and me, written by me.

We did have some rough patches in the beginning. I mistakenly assumed that because I was being well paid, I had to write whatever she told me to write. At one of our earliest meetings, after she’d read some chapters, she suggested a change that I didn’t agree with. “I’m not going to do that,” I said, being really impolitic, and to which she didn’t take kindly. I thought I would quit and return the advance I’d received. We talked it through: as long as I truly listened to and entertained her suggestions, I didn’t have to use them, provided I made a good case for why I wouldn’t. But sometimes what seems (or is) a bad editorial suggestion leads you unexpectedly to good results. You start asking yourself what about the story caused the suggestion to be made in the first place. If you can find the answer to that question, and rewrite the manuscript to pre-emptively counter it (the revision is pretty much never the original bad suggestion), the rewrite,at least for me, so far,is often an improvement.

It’s important to note that when I was hired, since there was no manuscript, there was as yet no publishing deal. A deal was secured only after I’d completed approximately 150 pages of a manuscript. The verbal pitch to editors had always been excellent, but they wanted to see the quality of the writing before making an offer.

What did the credited author want to accomplish with this project? She had a great, commercial conceit that she wanted to see fleshed out as a legitimate narrative. Not being a writer, and realizing that a great conceit wasn’t enough, she went looking for someone who could pen the books, which have become the Big Bang, as it were, of an imagined universe that has now expanded across a variety of media platforms. Sorry to sound like a marketing guy, but it’s true.


Why did you decide to switch from ghoster to author?

As mentioned earlier, I had published under my own name before becoming a ghost. But much as I’d never set out to write for children,Erasmus Twiddle was marketed as “middle-grade” fiction; it came into being after I wrote a paragraph in a voice I didn’t know I was capable of,I never planned on becoming a ghostwriter. I agreed to do it as an experiment, wanting to be less reverential toward what I commit to paper (and yes, I write on actual paper). Not that I ever wished to take less care with what I write. I wanted confidence that, when pressed to revise, I could conceive of word/sentence/plot variants at least as interesting as what I’d originally set down,even more, I wanted to develop the professional habit of always (up to a point!) questioning my choices so as to arrive at more nuanced, more revealing, more fun or dramatic. Five years as a ghost completed, I was eager to publish under my own name again. And while I enjoy writing things like Welfy Q. and YA, I’m simultaneously at work on material for an older crowd.


Why did you choose an orphan as a main character?

Welfy Q. pokes gentle fun at the standard conventions of sci-fi while exploiting them. Welfy is the “prophesied one” in an alien world. I thought the pithiest, most dramatic way to counterbalance this was to make him an orphan, a runaway from the foster care system, a kid who has never been the one chosen for adoption by prospective parents. Plus, I think it’s heroic for anyone, but especially a young person, to survive in the face of misfortune, neglect, systematic indifference, or undeserved hostility.


Eric Laster cover artWhat are themes/messages you want young people to take away from this story?

I don’t think about infusing messages into the fiction that I write. With Welfy Q., themes and motifs developed the further I got into the story. Once the book was finished, I teased out and/or tightened certain narrative threads, motifs, themes. But as to what, specifically, I want young,or any,people to take from this story, I have no answer. What I read in Welfy Q. is not what others will read. The most I hope for is that people find the book both fun and, for one reason or another emotionally resonant. Obviously, I have certain beliefs, an ethical code, and there are subjects about which I feel strongly and am drawn to explore; I wouldn’t be human if these things didn’t find their way into my writing.


Some of the characters’ names are Nnnn and Ffff and Grrrmmph. Is this just for fun or is there a method to it?

It’s “Grrrrmmph” with four r’s. The names are a nod to the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, whose book Cosmicomics features characters with the names “Llll” and “Qfwfq.” Besides, it’s fun to hear Siri stutter over them on an iPhone or iPad. Nor does it seem unreasonable to assume that what we as earthlings might consider goofy names are, elsewhere, to alien ears, not at all goofy. We hear “Ann” and think it’s perfectly normal, but to citizens of distant worlds it might sound just as odd as “Nnnn” does to us.


Some of the aliens say things like “gxo rlimoi Tryndian kcjcio,” “am gxo jcml lr gxo Tryndian,” “xoi jlicgalm ah ilmraimol.” Again, is this just for fun or is there a method to it?

Both. The alien language in the book (less than one page total) is not random. It’s a code, systematically translatable into English. As to the rest of the above quotations, here are the translations: “gxo rlimoi Tryndian kcjcio” means “the former Tryndian palace,” the Tryndian being an alien race. “Am gxo jcml lr gxo Tryndian” translates to “in the land of the Tryndian,” and “xoi jlicgalm ah ilmraimol” translates to “her location is confirmed.” Besides patterns in the alienspeak (the repetition of “gxo,” for example), the book contains further clues that the Brundeedle language can be translated,alienspeak followed by its English equivalent.

I don’t think it’s necessary to translate any of the alienspeak to enjoy the story, if readers don’t want to. Again, the total amount of Brundeedle dialogue takes up less than one page of the entire book. It just seemed wrong to have the aliens automatically speaking English when Welfy first appears among them. Often, bi-linguists will revert to their original language when voicing asides, etc. Why should the Brundeedles be different? But because I’m not a linguist and cannot, like Mr. Tolkien, invent an entire language, I decided to have the Brundeedles’ “gibberish” be a code, which kids who are so inclined can decipher. I had a bit of fun with some of what the aliens say in this code, knowing that only a special group of readers would ever likely decipher it.

The first-edition paperback and Welfy Q. ebook don’t explain any of this, by the way. I was leaving it to readers to figure out on their own. Nor are certain Brundeedle letters underlined or otherwise differentiated with asterisks and the like, as they are in the second edition, to help ease translation. But I’ve included a page at the end of the second-edition paperback that explains the Brundeedle language. It reads:

Out of the seventeen English letters that constitute the Brundeedle language, nine of them look as if they can stand for two different letters in English. For instance, an “a” in Brundeedle might either translate to an English “i” or “z.” To determine which English letter the Brundeedle “a” represents, you need to see if it is underlined. Thus, “a” in Brundeedle equals an English “i,” whereas “a” in Brundeedle translates to a “z” in English. Exceptions to this underline rule are “g” and “j.” A plain “g” is equivalent to an English “t,” but the same letter with an asterisk,”g*”,is equivalent to an English “k.” A plain “j” is equivalent to an English “l,” but if the same letter appears as “˘j” (note the strange smiley mark!), then it is equivalent to an English “q.” Proper nouns (names of people, places, creatures) are not translated.


twiddle-380x624Are there going to be further adventures of Welfy?

Yes, at least two more books, which I’m currently in the process of writing. But it’s very likely that a different book of mine will be published first. Tentatively titled Aftereffects, it’s a coming-of-age story cum murder mystery, complete with meds, young love/lust, family dysfunction, and an afterlife Walmart. In 2015, I’ll be at BEA and numerous Comicons, both to promote Welfy Q. and to build anticipation for Aftereffects prior to its publication.


Tell us about your involvement with orphans and homeless.

At present my involvement is minimal, and though I’ll be traveling a fair amount next year, I hope to rectify that somehow. Previously, I volunteered as a teacher in a Los Angeles literacy program. I grew up in New York City, where the homeless are omnipresent and yet willed into invisibility by those hurrying past them on the streets. Los Angeles too has a large homeless population. I have been around the homeless and hungry for as long as I can remember, and I have a BIG problem with the most vulnerable members of a population,kids,being punished by society because they got a less than stellar draw in the birth-lottery. Consider this dilemma: you’ve told me that some of the orphans you work with are cynical, and suspicious of do-gooders who appear in their midst, because they know that these do-gooders will soon abandon them. But are the do-gooders any less well-meaning because they vanished? Unlikely. They are, I trust, doing what they can, and very few people are able to devote a large portion of their lives to helping strangers, however much they might want to. Yet I don’t blame the kids for being wary of part-time do-gooders. If they haven’t had a stable homelife, or consistent emotional support from dedicated sources, how can they be expected to accept that fleeting emotional attachments to supportive individuals, largely strangers, are better than no attachments at all? How can it not seem just a cruel tease, a reminder of what they haven’t had, especially when hardships have conditioned sentiment out of them as a means of survival? My involvement with orphans and the homeless is a work-in-progress. On welfyq.com, I maintain an ever-expanding list of resources for people in need. Suggestions to add to the list are always welcome.


Got any advice to aspiring YA writers?

Read, persevere, read, persevere.


Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Sandy Williams

Sandy Williams
Sandy Williams is the author of the Shadow Reader YA trilogy by Ace. Her next book is a space urban fantasy/science fiction romance due in January 2015. She is currently reading The Wise Man’s Fear, book #2 in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. She has taken the ice bucket challenge.


CARL SLAUGHTER: The love triangle between McKenzie, Aren, and Kyol created a lot of buzz on Good Reads. Readers spent a lot of time discussing which guy is sexier, which one is better suited for McKenzie, and her decision making process when she chose between the two. Why did you choose to include a love triangle in the story?

SANDY WILLIAMS: Ah, the love triangle question. Readers either love them or hate them. Surprisingly, a good number of readers who usually hate love triangles enjoyed McKenzie’s story. I think that’s because I didn’t write it as a love triangle. I wrote a story about a girl who falls out of love with one guy, and into love with another. When I was writing the story, I tried really, really hard not to make McKenzie go back and forth between the two guys. She’ll always love Kyol, of course, but it’s a different kind of love, and once she made the decision to move on, she moved on. That didn’t erase all the memories she had with him, or the fact that he’s a good, respectable man, but she found Aren, and he lets her be who she wants to be. He lets her take risks and doesn’t protect her from the knowledge of the evil in the Realm. They fit together better.


CS: When McKenzie finally gets what she’s been asking for for 10 years, a normal life in the human world, she goes back into the fae world and stays. Was she really happy or did she really at home in the fae world all along?

SW: She definitely wasn’t happy with a normal job and life in the real world. After ten years, she’d built too many relationships to be able to say goodbye to the Realm. When she gets a taste of normal, she realizes that she’s permanently changed, and that she doesn’t need to be like everyone else on Earth; she can be herself.


17211803CS: At the beginning of the series, McKenzie is a Nancy Drew type, using her gift to analyze the scenes where fae transported. By the end of the series, she has learned how to wield a sword and uses it in battle. So she’s become a sort of warrior princess type. Why the transformation?

SW: I love the transformation! McKenzie has always been a strong, brave person, but in a world where everyone else has wielded a sword since they could walk, she’s never stood a chance against her enemies. She’s always had to have a protector. I wanted her to be able to take care of herself. She has the courage for it, and because of a certain event at the end of The Shattered Dark, she starts developing the skills. I love how that changes her character.


CS: If “Shadow Reader” is turned into a movie, who would you want to play McKenzie? What about Aren, Kyol, Lena and the other characters?

SW: This is one of the hardest questions I’m asked. I can point to actors and actresses who look similar to the characters in my head, but they’ve never been in a role where they acted like my characters, and a person’s movements, expressions, posture, etc. make up such a big portion of a character in my mind. But, if I’m forced to identify specific actors and actresses, I can do that. 🙂 For McKenzie, if the model on the cover of my books has any acting ability at all, she would do phenomenally. She looks EXACTLY like McKenzie. I’m so lucky my cover artist found the perfect match. I’m not a huge Brad Pitt fan, but Brad from the movie TROY totally works as an Aren. Kyol is probably the hardest match to find because there’s so much in his personality that makes him unique. Gah. I seriously can’t think of any actor that comes close to Kyol, but I’m going to say Stephen Amell, just because I love ARROW and he can be intense.


CS: What’s next for Sandy Williams?

I’m planning to release a sci-fi romance early next year. I’m excited about it. Both the hero and heroine can kick some serious butt, and they have a fun history. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter here . I can’t wait until it releases!


Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

amy-boggs-photoLiterary agent Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek who has been professionally geeking out over books at Donald Maass agency since 2009. She specializes in speculative fiction and is especially interested in high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA, MG, and alternate history.

Her recent books include: Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, the final book in the Skyscraper Throne series (urban fantasy); Thea Harrison’s Knight’s Honor, book #7 in the Elder Races series (paranormal romance); Jacey Bedford’s Empire of Dust, the first in space opera series.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Why get into agenting? Rather than writing or editing, or marketing or publicity, or publishing.

AMY BOGGS: I knew I wanted to get into the agenting side of the business after interning at an agency my sophomore year at college. Right out of college, I would have been very happy to have a job that touched publishing in any way, so I could have spent time in any division of a publishing house, but I knew agenting was my end goal because it combines many of my favorite things about the book business. You brainstorm with your authors and help them revise and negotiate fair contracts and fight bad covers and talk them into good covers they don’t particularly like and tell everyone you can about their fabulous books. I work solely for the author, because what benefits the author benefits the agency and me. I like that my job is purely championing my authors and their work.


How did you know as early as college that you wanted to be a literary agent?

Vassar College’s Career Development Office had a weekly newsletter they left in our mailboxes, and one day there was a notice for an internship at a literary agency. I had a vague idea of what agents did and thought it would be good experience. Once I got on the job, I knew it was what I wanted to do in my future.


How did you rise from intern to agent so quickly?

Did I? I think agent careers reflect author careers in that you can’t really say there is a typical timeline they’re supposed to follow. This varies by the agency, of course, but I did my first agency internship in 2005 and then interned at DMLA in 2008 (with jobs at two magazines in between) and then was hired as an agency assistant in 2009. Eight months later I found a brilliant author in my boss’s queries and he thought I should be the one to take him on. Two months later I signed my next client, and five months later I sold a three-book deal. I don’t know if that’s quick or slow or typical, but it happened very organically. I do know that I’m fortunate to work at an agency that encouraged my growth and has a few decades of experience to back me up.


Why so keen on sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve always loved it. When I was three, I was obsessed with Scooby-Doo. Bruce Coville was my childhood. My pre-teen self couldn’t get enough of Unsolved Mysteries, but only the segments with aliens, UFOs, ghosts, and supernatural critters. The Princess Bride was my family’s first DVD. I played Legend of Zelda and read Harry Potter and wrote portal fantasy all through middle and high school. I’m not entirely sure why; I just find other worlds more interesting, and a better avenue for exploring the quandaries on our own world. Perhaps I’m the opposite of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy; my mind works mostly in metaphors.


How do you size up whether an author is a good fit for you and a good fit for your agency?

99% of it is the manuscript; can’t do anything without a good manuscript. 1% is whether or not the author is a jerk. I have lots of authors and lots of excellent manuscripts coming my way and only a finite amount of time, so I’d prefer to spend it with cool people and not jerks. How do I determine if someone is a jerk? Well, if they’ve ever seriously blogged things like “I’m not racist, but†” or “I just happen to read only male authors.” then chances are I’m not the right agent for them.


When you read a manuscript, how do you tell when you’ve got a winner? Characters, plot, writing style? Current market? Or do you listen to your instinct?

All of the above. Intriguing characters fall flat with a monotone writing style, no amount of exciting plot can make up for characters that aren’t worth following, all the elements have to work together. All of those have to be doubly unique and amazing if it’s in a subgenre that’s recently been hot and now everyone’s sick of it. And instinct is really just a combination of all this and having read enough to know when something stands out. There is nothing quite like it when you’ve read 100 queries that day and one of them makes you sit up in your chair.


Do you get most of your new clients over the transom, through networking, or at conventions and workshop?

70% of my clients came to me through my queries. The rest are from recommendations from co-workers, clients, and even one from my mom (she is a children’s bookseller, so she knows her stuff).


How many manuscripts a year do you consider and what percentage do you accept?

I actually don’t have those numbers; when I check a manuscript off my list to read, I literally delete it off the list! But I would guess I consider about 100 manuscripts a year, and I end up signing about 2% of those. I wouldn’t say I accept them; when an agent offers representation, they are offering to partner with the author. So really what happens is both agent and author agree to a partnership.


Do you work with authors on revising?

Yes. I am pickier about the amount of revision I’m willing to take on (more clients equals less time for revising debut manuscripts), but I always want a manuscript to be as perfect as both the author and I can make it before it goes to editors.


Do you get involved on the publicity/marketing end?

I help where I can, but I am not a publicist. That’s a position that requires a particular set of skills, skills acquired over a very long career.


If you take on a new client, what kind of productivity do you expect? How many books a year?

That depends entirely on the client and the genre(s) they write in. In romance, anything less than one book a year isn’t enough. In literary fiction, one book every five years isn’t far out there. What I really want is for my authors not to feel overwhelmed and pushed into delivering inferior books. So far that hasn’t happened; publishing is more accommodating than one might fear.


Do you prefer an author stick with a series? Are stand alones trickier commercially? Or does it matter?

Again, depends on the author and genre(s). And really, it’s not about my preference, but what I advise to the author. It is their career and it is my job to make sure they are well-informed so that regardless of the choices they make, they won’t be sideswiped by the outcome.


Any subgenres you can’t get enough of? Any you get too much of?

High fantasy. Richly built, other-world high fantasy with fantastic characters I want to follow forever, like N.K. Jemisin, Megan Whalen Turner, Scott Lynch, Ellen Kushner. Most of the fantasy I get is tied to our world (historical, contemporary, urban, steampunk) and those are lovely, but I want more high fantasy. And it’s not so much that I get too much of any subgenre, but that I get things typical of a subgenre. Like portal fantasy where the protagonist is mystically taken to another land and the plot is their quest to get home. I want something new, regardless of subgenre.


What are the most common misconceptions new writers have about finding and working with literary agents?

1. Agents are gatekeepers. As cool and ominous as that sounds, it’s not true. An agent’s job isn’t to keep people out, it’s to find those they have the time and ability to help get published. Like I said above, it’s a partnership. Agents put out their information to say they’re looking for authors to partner with, writers pick which agents they want to reach out to partner with, agents decide which of those writers they think they could make a good partnership with, and writers decide whether or not they want to partner with the agent who offers. I know from a querying author’s perspective it can seem like agents have all the power here, but the thing is, we’re nothing without authors.

2. After you get an agent, things get easier. Ha. If only. No matter what level you’re at as an author, things are hard. Even that beloved author of multiple series has that major newspaper that trashes each book and faces the same blank page when they go to write their next book. It’s always hard, just different kinds of hard.


What are the most common manuscript mistakes new writers make?

1. Emulating books that aren’t debuts published within the last five years. Writing changes with society and readers have continually changing expectations for debut novels. Imitating Tolkien in a world that has had Tolkien’s books for 77 years is like trying to get people to invest in your new invention “the zipper.” We’ve already got that. Show us something new.

2. Transcribing literally what published novelists do subtly. I think this is why I get so many queries that start with the protagonist telling you the daily nuances of their life or a prologue that goes into detail about the world the book is set in. Novelists often get this information across subtly over the course of a novel, and by the end a reader knows ever detail intimately, so the impulse to start a book by describing the details is an understandable one. It’s just one that must be fought.

3. Going with the path of least resistance in writing. Writing is not easy, and so when plotting along, it’s tempting to go with the first thing that comes to mind. Often, however, the first thing to come to mind is something already seen in other books. It’s too easy to let inspiration become imitation become a clichÃ’ . Author Kate Brauning had a recent post about how she comes up with fresh ideas with “The Rule of Ten.” I think it’s utterly brilliant and challenges writers to question their gut.


Advice to new writers?

Be daring and be true. It will come across in your work.


Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Jennifer Rush

JennRushJennifer Rush does YA and MG, sci fi and horror, prequels and sequels, male and female POVs, romance and action. Let’s just say she’s versatile.


CARL SLAUGHTER: When your agency decided to represent Altered and when your publisher decided to buy it, what type of feedback did you get from the agent and editor? What aspects of the story appealed to them?

JENNIFER RUSH: I think it was a few different elements. Thrillers, and characters that have been genetically altered, weren’t huge at the time, so I think it helped that the idea was fresh. I also focused a lot on keeping up the action, and the plot twists, so I think that helped too!


CARL: Your third Altered book is going to be a prequel. Why delve into Nick’s past?

JENNIFER: It’s technically a companion novel to Altered and Erased, since it takes place shortly after Erased ended. A lot of readers expressed interest in Nick after reading Altered and Erased, and I really loved him as a character, so when it came time to deciding what my third book would be, it really was a no-brainer! Nick is an interesting guy, with a dark, complicated past. I knew he’d be fun to write, and I knew there was a lot of potential for plot lines with his past involvement with the Branch. I’m hoping readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


CS: Why do you use a dual POV in the third book, one boy, one girl, as opposed to one POV in the first two books, namely the female character?

JR: It was my editor that suggested I try writing the book in a dual POV, and using Nick as one of the POV characters in order to get inside his head. I was afraid of trying it at first. I didn’t think I’d be able to do him justice. And Nick is a mysterious character, and I wasn’t sure if readers would really want to see inside his head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to peel back that layer. But, it turned out, writing Nick was one of the best experiences I’ve had yet! You’re never really sure what he’s going to do, or what he’s going to say. I loved that aspect.


CS: One of the main characters in Altered 3 is male, broken, and a badass. You’re none of the above. So how do you take the reader into this character’s head?

JR: Good question! This was something I definitely worried about when setting out to write Altered 3. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write from a male POV. I have in the past, with Bot Wars, for instance, but Trout is a twelve-year-old boy, which isn’t quite the same as writing an older teenage assassin. I definitely used my husband for some of the writing. I would ask him what a boy would do in a certain scenario, or what he would say. As far as the broken aspect, I just tried to imagine what it would be like to have lived through the things Nick has lived through, and what it would do to a person. For Nick, that means a lot of destructive behavior. The only thing keeping him together are the people surrounding him — Anna, Sam, Cas, and in some regards, Trev. Nick really is a better man with his “family” around.


CS: The male characters in the Altered series are described as hot. But at the same time, there is plenty of danger for the main characters. How do you blend the sex appeal and the danger into the relationships and the plot? Do the protagonists make decisions based on their survival instinct, their moral compass, their desire for human fulfillment, or their romantic and sexual attraction to each other?

JR: I think it’s all of those elements. Their decisions do have a lot to do with surviving. They’re running for their lives on a daily basis. But they are also good people, or want to be. They don’t want to kill people just to kill, but sometimes its necessary in order to survive. And I think romance, or perhaps love is a better way of describing it, factors into their decisions too. They all love each other, especially Sam and Anna, so when they make a move, they want to be sure the risk is worth it.


CS: Are there steamy scenes? How steamy can you get with a YA novel?

JR: There aren’t many steamy scenes in Altered. There’s some kissing and some sexual tension, but I’m a writer that fades to black. I’m a bit conservative when it comes to writing sexy scenes! But that’s just a personal preference. I feel like YA now is a lot more open to a lot more subject matter, and there are fewer lines drawn in the sand. You have to write what you’re comfortable writing, and what feels right for your book and your characters.


CS: Your first series, Bot Wars, is MG. Your second series, Altered, is YA. What are the distinctive storytelling challenges between these two age groups?

JR: With YA, the story is much more personal. Teens (usually) are getting their first taste of freedom, and exploring what’s important to them, and how they relate to the world. Romance is also a huge part of YA. As a reader, I expect there to be romance! As a writer, I try to strike a balance between story and romance, so that neither element overshadows the other. With MG, families still play a huge part in a tween’s life, so I like to incorporate parents and siblings as much as I can into the storylines. I also think humor is important in MG, at least from my standpoint, and being funny is hard work!


CS: You’re working on a horror story. Is this an experiment or is this your next targeted genre?

JR: At this point, it’s still an experiment! I have the entire story mapped out, and quite a bit of it written, but it’s still in its early stages, and I’m not sure its quite right for my “brand” at this point. But I’m not giving up on it entirely! I’m just putting it on the back burner for now.


CS: The cover art for Altered has tree branches covering a boy’s body. What do these branches represent?

JR: One of the boys — Sam — has that tattooed on his back. The tattoo factors into the plot quite heavily. But I don’t want to dig further, because I don’t want to spoil anything!


CS: What does a typical month look like for an author promoting their books?

JR: For me, it’s a lot of social media work — tweeting regularly, whether it’s book stuff, or just personal stuff, to engage with readers and potential readers. There’s usually a blog tour as well, and we always try to keep it fun and unique! I also like to send out bookmarks, and books, through giveaways, or fun Twitter games. I really like playing trivia games on Twitter! I try to keep the month before a book releases as laid back as possible, because it can become stressful!


CS: Did you start with short fiction or delve directly into novels? How many novels did you write before you sold your first?

JR: I never really experimented with short stories in the beginning. I read primarily novels, so it’s what I knew and it’s where I started. Now with the digital market expanding, and with readers hungry for more content, I’ve started writing novellas to fill in characters’ backstories, and give readers extra content between novels. Before I signed with my agent, I wrote somewhere around 12-14 novels. I’m an impatient writer, and there’s always a book waiting in the wings! I tend to write fast, and then move right on to the next project.


CS: Any advice to aspiring novelists?

JR: Read! Read lots, and read widely. Read books you love, and read books you hate. Take note of what you liked about a book, and what you didn’t like, and how you might have done it differently. And then write the book that you want to read. If you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, then the reader won’t enjoy it either. Don’t write to trends. And, most importantly, keep going. Don’t give up. Perseverance is more than half the battle. It takes a long time to learn the craft, and perfect it, and it takes even longer to find the right fit with an agent or publisher. Try to be patient. It’s easier said than done, though, I know!


Books by Jennifer Rush
“Altered” – out now
“Erased” – Altered #2 – out now
“Forged” – Altered prequel – out now
“Untitled” – Altered #3 – January 2015
“Bot Wars” – out now
“The Meta-Rise” – Bot Wars #2 – July 10th 2014